Even if a service dog isn’t the right fit for your child with autism, a plain ol’ pet dog can offer some of the same therapeutic benefits, such as comfort, companionship and confidence. But before you adopt the cutest canine at the shelter, you need to consider your child’s needs and how a dog will fit into your lifestyle. Here are three questions to ask, courtesy of Laurel Summerfield of Aretas Assistance Dogs, a local nonprofit organization that trains service dogs for children.
Does your child have a natural enjoyment of animals?
Dog is not necessarily child’s best friend—in fact, some kids with autism are scared of animals, or dogs in particular. Let your child meet a few dogs before bringing one into the home; therapy dogs, since they’re usually well-behaved, may be ideal for testing the waters.
What type of dog would be best?
“I’ve seen kids with autism who literally would not touch a dog that had a coat—they only want the single-coated, short-coated dog. They don’t even want to touch a Labrador; they certainly don’t want to plunge their hands into a collie’s coat,” Summerfield explains. “But I have other kids who get their comfort out of running their hands through a long, plush coat.”
If your child has sensory needs, you want a dog that eases, rather than exacerbates, their issues. Also consider that some breeds tend to be barkers, some breeds require lots of activity, some breeds are quite excitable—do your research to find a type of dog that fits your family’s lifestyle.
Beyond breed characteristics, Summerfield believes strongly in choosing a dog who is naturally attracted to your family—and, most important, your kid. In her service dog training program, “our absolute top criteria for matching a dog with a person is the dog selecting the person,” she explains. “We will get radically different responses from dogs when they meet different people. Even with pet dogs I just think that you’ve got to find the right match.”
So it’s a good idea to take your child to meet prospective pups and watch how they interact before taking one home.
Who is going to train the dog?
Even if you’re not teaching the dog to do service tasks, you want your fur baby to reduce the general stress level in your household, not add to it with wild behavior.
“Can a well-behaved, well-mannered, well-trained dog work wonders for a kid? Sure,” says Summerfield. “But a bouncing, leaping-on, licking-in-the-face dog that’s stealing all their toys may have just the opposite impact.”
It’s wise to consult a professional trainer, but know that you’ll have to continue the trainer’s work at home—it takes time and commitment to have a well-trained dog. But it may be worth it for you and your child.
“I think it’s about making sure that a dog is right for that child, finding the right dog for that child, and then finding the right training so that the dog is an asset and not a liability,” Summerfield concludes.
Photo courtesy of IDEA Service Dogs.